15 Best Things to Do in Tavistock (Devon, England)

Written by Alex Bird
Updated on
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In the 14th century, the World Heritage town of Tavistock was appointed one of Devon’s four Stannary Towns by King Edward I. All drawing on the mineral-rich soils by the western edge of Dartmoor, these towns supplied tin to much of Europe.

Metal mining was a way of life for hundreds of years, peaking in the 19th century with a copper boom.

Tavistock’s most famous son is Sir Francis Drake, the privateer and explorer, who resided at Buckland Abbey for 15 years.

From late-Medieval times to the 20th century, Tavistock’s story was entwined with the Earls and Dukes of Bedford, responsible for the magnificent ensemble on Bedford Square and a style of vernacular architecture that you can see throughout the town.

1. Dartmoor

DartmoorSource: ASC Photography / shutterstock

Tavistock is on the western boundary of a national park covering 954 square kilometres.

This is an ancient granite moor with hilltops that have exposed rocky outcrops known as tors.

The highest of these is High Willhays at more than 620 metres above sea level.

Between the peaks are misty, waterlogged bogs, the kind that inspired Arthur Conan Doyle’s Hound of the Baskervilles.

An abiding feature of the landscape is the Dartmoor Pony, a semi-wild breed that grazes free on the moors.

The National Park Visitor Centre at Princetown, where Conan Doyle stayed, is a great resource if you want to get the best out of the park.

There’s an interactive introduction to Dartmoor’s wildlife, a conservation garden outside with regional species and temporary exhibitions in a former ballroom.

2. Tamar Valley

Tamar ValleySource: Giles Kent / shutterstock
Tamar Valley

South and west of Tavistock is another protected landscape straddling the Tamar River on the way down to Plymouth.

The Tamar Valley is both an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and part of the Cornwall and West Devon Mining Landscape UNESCO World Heritage Site.

To see the valley’s greenery and Medieval stone crossings, you would never know that there were once more than 100 mines on the banks, for tin, lead, silver but most importantly copper.

The export docks at Mowellham Quay are an open-air museum and a snapshot of the valley’s copper trade in the 1800s.

Cotehele, another recommended excursion, is a late-Medieval mansion on an estate that supplied silver to the Royal Mint.

3. Pannier Market

Pannier MarketSource: Nigel Jarvis / shutterstock
Pannier Market

Henry I awarded Tavistock the right to a weekly “Pannier Market” in 1105, and the tradition has persisted for 900 years.

The name “pannier” comes from the baskets that were used to transport goods.

The Pannier Market trades in a grand covered hall from Tuesday to Saturday between 09:00 and 16:30. As it was in the 12th century, the main market day is Friday and known as the Charter Market.

This is when you can shop for local fresh produce as well as special treats like freshly ground coffee and olives straight from Spain.

Tuesday is for antiques and collectibles, on Wednesday and Thursday there are mixed markets with an accent on crafts, while Saturday varies between collectibles and arts and crafts.

4. Buckland Abbey

Buckland AbbeySource: littlemisspurps / Flickr
Buckland Abbey

As the name tells you, this resplendent house was adapted from a Cistercian monastery (1278) after the Reformation.

You can see the arches, pillars and scars left on the walls by the lost adjoining church, as well as the monastery’s Great Barn.

In 1541 Buckland Abbey was sold by the crown to the Member of Parliament, Richard Grenville, whose son Roger captained the Mary Rose, dying when it sank in the Solent in 1545. Francis Drake lived at Buckland Abbey for 15 years, and his collateral descendants remained here until 1946 when the property was sold off and handed over to the National Trust.

The house has period detail from Elizabethan to Victorian times and abounds with incredible museum pieces.

There’s a precise replica of Drake’s Drum, a snare drum that Drake took with him around the world, emblazoned with his coat of arms (the original is in climate-controlled storage), and a self-portrait by Rembrandt, only verified in 2014.

5. Merrivale

MerrivaleSource: Josie Elias / shutterstock

Among the most impressive pieces of prehistory on the moor is Merrivale, a Bronze Age settlement with a complex of ritualistic sites.

The site is as old as 4,500 years and was probably worked on until around 1000 BC. You can try to decipher a stone circle, a stone row, two stone avenues more than 200 metres long, several standing stones and numerous burial mounds.

There’s also a box-like burial chamber (a kist), which was broken open and found to contain sharpened flints and a whetstone for polishing stone items.

Merrivale also blends with more recent archaeology, at the remnants of tin mining and smelting buildings by the River Walkham and its side streams, as well as a granite quarry that was worked until the 1990s.

6. The Garden House

The Garden HouseSource: Roy Perring / shutterstock
The Garden House

Laid out in a valley on Dartmoor is a joyful garden often mentioned with the best in the country.

The Garden House is a horticulturalists’ idea of heaven, planting more than 6,000 varieties and providing real inspiration for visitors between March and the end of October.

Here flowers are allowed to mingle together using informal “naturalistic planting”, creating unusual flourishes of colour.

The centrepiece is the walled garden, while presiding over the entire space is the ruined tower of a 16th-century vicarage.

Other memorable patches are the bulb meadow in spring, the South African garden, cottage garden and acer glade.

Garden House is the name for the mansion that took the place of the vicarage in the 1800s, an elegant place to take coffee or afternoon tea.

Come for the crocuses in March, the rhododendrons and azaleas in spring and to see the Japanese maples turning in autumn.

7. Tavistock Museum

Tavistock MuseumSource: Tavistock Museum / facebook
Tavistock Museum

A team of volunteers runs this likeable town museum, housed in the historic Court Gate beside the Town Hall.

The bulk of the permanent exhibition is in two rooms on the first floor, where you can lift the lid on Tavistock’s mining heritage and learn about Sir Francis Drake’s ties to the town.

There’s a superb array of rock specimens brought to the surface at mines in the Tamar Valley, as well as some preserved mining tools, and a video presentation about the Benedictine Tavistock Abbey, which was founded more than a century before the Norman Conquest.

Also interesting is the display about Tavistock’s three hundred or so “Bedford Cottages”, distinctive houses built to a groundbreaking template in the mid-19th century.

8. Town Hall

Town HallSource: Fulcanelli / shutterstock
Town Hall

Gifted to the town by the 7th Duke of Bedford in 1860, Tavistock’s town hall is in the vernacular (Bedford Style), a kind of Perpendicular Gothic Revival.

This attention-grabbing building is embellished with clustered chimney stacks, decorative battlements, a slate roof with four dormers and an elegant central oriel with its own little crenellations.

The main hall has impressive proportions, with space for 400 under its finely carved oak beams.

The Town Hall is often reserved for weddings, but opens up for sports activities like yoga classes, as well as a regular flea market and exhibitions by local art groups.

9. Tavistock Canal

Tavistock CanalSource: Nilfanion / Wikimedia
Tavistock Canal

This waterway was built in the first years of the 19th century to move goods like copper ore, slate and limestone between Tavistock and the major inland port at Morwhellam Quay ten miles to the south on the River Tamar.

There’s no boat traffic on the Tavistock Canal, but you can walk its towpath to see stone bridges, old locks, sweet waterfront cottages and the solemn Shillamill Aqueduct.

For an edifying afternoon out there’s an open-air museum at Morwhellam Quay, preserving the village, two copper mines, the docks, quaysides and a Victorian farm.

None of the barges that served the Tavistock Canal have survived intact, but the museum features a wrought iron rudder from one of these boats recovered from the canal in 1976.

10. Dartmoor Prison Museum

Dartmoor Prison MuseumSource: qwesy qwesy / Wikimedia
Dartmoor Prison Museum

Few prisons in the UK are as famous as HMP Dartmoor, which is more than 200 years old and cuts a powerful figure in the centre of the National Park.

Among the many prominent former inmates is the President of Ireland, Éamon de Valera for his role in the 1916 Easter Rising.

The prison museum is set in 19th-century dairy buildings and reveals the facility’s origins, as a prisoner of war camp in the Napoleonic Wars, and studies the changing purpose of the prison over time.

A raft of artefacts is on display, like arts and crafts produced by inmates, including model carts and boxes fashioned from mutton bones by French prisoners of war, as well as seized contraband, crude weapons, manacles and uniforms.

A moving exhibition tells the stories of conscientious objectors imprisoned at Dartmoor in the First World War.

11. Tamar Valley Donkey Park

Tamar Valley Donkey ParkSource: Tamar Valley Donkey Park / facebook
Tamar Valley Donkey Park

Across the Tamar in Cornwall is a sanctuary for donkeys rescued from farms and homes.

There are more than 20 of these friendly equines, ranging from just a couple of years old to 35. Relying on the entry fee for income, the Donkey Park is a no-frills attraction where the inhabitants’ well-being is paramount.

Children can have a go feeding and grooming the donkeys and taking them on a short walk.

Also in the park are sheep, pigs and cheeky goats, which are known to pick people’s pockets, while guinea pigs and rabbits are ready to be cuddled.

You can stop at Holly’s Cafe a for a cream tea, and kids can burn off excess energy at the indoor and outdoor play areas.

12. St Michael’s Church, Brentor

St Michael's ChurchSource: Julian Gazzard / shutterstock
St Michael’s Church

Brentor is the name of a village at the foot of Brent Tor, a 330-metre hill.

This is, in fact, a weathered Carboniferous volcano, made up of lava and breccia that burst through a sea many millions of years ago, and was turned into a hillfort in the Iron Age.

Cresting Brent Tor, atop these prehistoric earthworks is St Michael’s Church, which has surely one of the most amazing locations in the country.

It is composed of the volcanic stone and dates from the 13th century, with 15th century changes.

There’s room for 40 worshippers inside, along with a 17th-century memorial stone on the north wall and a 15th-century font with an octagonal stem and base.

On the outer south wall of the tower you can make out a slate sundial, carved with the 12 signs of the zodiac and dated 1642.

13. Church of St Eustachius

Church of St EustachiusSource: Dave Goodman / shutterstock
Church Of St Eustachius

A great piece of Perpendicular Gothic architecture on Bedford Square, Tavistock’s parish church is also a key document for the town’s Medieval past.

It gained its present form between 1350 and 1450, during which time the southernmost Clothworkers’ Aisle was constructed.

This shows how important the textiles industry was to Tavistock at that time.

Some of the things to see are the 14th-century water stoup, an octagonal baptismal font carved in the 15th century, the roof bosses, also from the 15th century, and funerary monuments from the 1600s (Fitz and Glanville). The 19th-century stained glass is also sublime, among which is a window by the Arts and Crafts artist William Morris.

14. Cotehele

CoteheleSource: Philip Bird LRPS CPAGB / shutterstock

Downriver from Morwhellam Quay on the Cornish bank of the Tamar is a Medieval and Tudor Grade I house owned by one family, the Edgcumbes until the 20th century.

Cotehele is rooted in the early 1300s, although the present building went up over two phases between the 1480s and 1520s.

After that almost no changes were made to this marvellous granite and slate mansion, a testament to the estate’s rich silver deposits.

From March to October you can tour the house to view centuries old furniture and fixtures like the Cotehele clock, installed at the turn of the 16th century and so the UK’s earliest turret clock in situ.

Cotehele’s grounds are open all year and ramble down to the Tamar where you’ll come to the Cotehele Quay.

Docked here is Shamrock, the world’s only ketch-rigged Tamar sailing barge, built in 1899, and the Edgcumbe Tea Room for cream teas by the fire.

15. Farmers’ Market

Farmers' MarketSource: www.tavistockfarmersmarket.com
Farmers’ Market

On Bedford Square, in front of the stately Town Hall, you can catch Tavistock’s farmers’ market on the 2nd, 4th and 5th Saturday of the month from 09:00 to 15:00. Buying straight from the producer is obviously more sustainable, and comes with the satisfaction of knowing you’re supporting the local economy.

You’ll also be able to ask questions of the stallholders, as these are the people who grew, baked, reared, caught, smoked, pickled or brewed this produce, and will be happy to speak for their stock.

The market was awarded Devon Life’s “Best Farmer’s Market” in 2018.

15 Best Things to Do in Tavistock (Devon, England):

  • Dartmoor
  • Tamar Valley
  • Pannier Market
  • Buckland Abbey
  • Merrivale
  • The Garden House
  • Tavistock Museum
  • Town Hall
  • Tavistock Canal
  • Dartmoor Prison Museum
  • Tamar Valley Donkey Park
  • St Michael's Church, Brentor
  • Church of St Eustachius
  • Cotehele
  • Farmers' Market